Women during the Civil War

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The bloodiest of wars in American History began in the Battle of Fort Sumter on April 12 of 1861 in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Many Americans faced uncertainty as the first battle of many launched a bloody four year war between the North and South or better known as the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. Most staggered with uncertainty were the women who immediately gripped the reigns of responsibility of their homes and family once compelled with the absence of the men that parted for war. Before they participated on the battlefields as soldiers and nurses and discretely worked to retrieve information from the opposing side; they also took over businesses at home that were once operated by their husbands or fathers, including plantations where some women failed not to resort to violence if necessary to show control over slaves. They also raised aid and money for soldiers despite opposition from the soldiers themselves who believed a woman ought not to do a mans work in business affairs.

They even worked as recruiting officers to enlist men in the war and humiliated those who desired not to join the war where their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers were fighting and at fatal risk of never returning. These women tirelessly served and took on the roles their men left them all while having no political voice or influence. The women who joined the war were no different. They took on the roles of men as soldiers and the roles of women as spies, nurses, and advocators. Women in the Civil War have contributed to the war and paid in sacrifices just as men have whether on the battlefield or at home. The women in the Civil War lack credit for their efforts and remain contoured in the shadows of men who garnered more recognition in their battle glory than the bold and fearless women who took on greater risks and threats than men on the battlefield and in society.

Despite the tenor of gloom and mistrust that any neighbor, friend, or town local could be partial to the opposing side; some citizens were gleeful at the chance of lending a hand in the war. Belle Boyde also known as the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter was one of them. She used a charming and cunningly seductive demeanor to ruse men from either side to reveal information so that she may expose the soldiers from the Union or faithfully retrieve the information for the Confederates. Belle Boyde feared that any man could be a Yankee spy and deemed it her responsibility to sought them out so she became a spy herself for the Confederates. She could not find it in herself to sit and dawdle with domestic responsibilities when she could be out there contributing to the Confederate Government. Belle was extremely confident about herself and in the things she did which made her feel that much more invincible.

It was not safe for anyone, especially women on either side during these harrowing times that remained at home waiting for the return of their men. Women were assaulted, raped, tortured, and dehumanized by passing soldiers that claimed the towns they marched through. Belle had no fear or hesitation once her infamous temper set in that allowed her to carry out her intentions. She placed her own life at risk by shooting a Union soldier in the neck that had threatened to do harm to her mother after a group of Union soldiers broke into their house to inspect any signs of Confederate belongings which could have been fatal had they found the Confederate flag tucked hidden in the house. She often scouted at night and rehearsed new lies to tell if she got stopped on her path by Union soldiers, one lie being she was a Knights Daughter. She was arrested many times for helping the Confederates and later wrote a memoir about her experiences in camp and prison. After the war she continued her fame by becoming an actress; and later battled identity theft with young impersonators claiming to be Belle Boyd. She married her third husband (two of them ironically being former Union soldiers) and faced sporadic bouts of mental illness throughout the rest of her life from war ghosts from her past. She was not the only well-known spy for the Confederates. She was influenced largely by Rose ONeal Greenhow.

Perhaps one of the most well-known spies of the Civil War was Confederate Loyalist, Rose ONeal Greenhow, better known as Wild Rose who provided a lot of secret classified Union intel for the Confederates. She persuaded and seduced men from both the North and South in trusting her with information in political affairs and agendas and knew more powerful men than any other spy. She interestingly and cleverly translated her information in basic codes inspired by Edgar Allan Poes short story The Gold-Bug. It was through these relationships where she honed her principles and skills. Unlike the soldiers in combat she used her own gender as a woman to manipulate the North and South. According to a journal by Amy Murrell Taylor, These beliefs, combined with Greenhow's access to leaders and the protective cover of her gender, made her an ideal spy in the minds of the Confederates who recmited her in 1861 (Taylor 952).

Early on she mustered up money by seamstress work and placed furniture as collateral so that she could pay for rent and provide for her youngest daughter little Rose who would later become a big influence and partner in her war efforts. Much like Belle Boyd, she found herself in prison many times for suspicion of working for the rebels. She would later meet her end by falling overboard of a small boat fleeing Union soldiers she believed were coming to arrest her. The weight of her gold that was tied to her body plunged her beneath the sea.

To join the war, people no matter their bill of health had to be evaluated by a doctor who only cared about adding the count of bodies to join the war rather than whether they were able to fight and last in the war. If they could pinch a trigger, they could weather the war. Prior to fleeing Canada from her abusive father and an arranged marriage (a push factor for many young women), Sarah Emma Edmonds better known as Frank Thompson, joined the war by her grace and faith in God and served for two years disguised as a man in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She was one out of four hundred women that joined the war (whether it was for the Unions or the Confederates) that either escaped abuse, poverty, or the opposite; they chased family or a husband into the war. Her father who had often broken out in sporadic rage (a preceding action that conceived all of his childrens pregnancies) had become dispirited in hope that his wife would bear him a healthy son after three daughters and an epileptic son. According to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, She learned to hunt, and fish and break wild colts, trying her best to be the boy her father wanted, but never heard one word of praise (Abbott 18).

Franks sobriquet was our woman due to her, his petite figure, high falsetto, and the smallness of his hands and feet. Her body was strong from aiding her fathers help on their farm and found pure pleasure in her role of instructing men how to correctly use a riffle. She surpassed the threat of discovery by sleeping in her uniform as many soldiers did to prevent more effort and energy spent in the mornings for preparations and drills. She blamed the bloody rags she used on her menstrual cycles as rags used for wounds. She also used many disguises such as an Irish Immigrant, a black male slave (shaving her head and painting her skin with silver nitrate), and a few other alias as a white man in order to spy on the Confederates for the Union Army. She dressed as a woman after suffering malaria but found she could not return to the war as Frank once she discovered a wanted poster for Franks desertion. She served as a nurse once her war career as Frank was over.

Despite not wanting to fire her guns at people she ultimately had no choice once faced with grave danger. In her military career was an agent spy that took down Confederate rings as well as a soldier and nurse that tended to wounded and dying soldiers. She was also a postmaster who gathered and delivered mail. When witnessing the gruesome fall of a soldier she reminded herself to keep composure as Frank, Simply eyes, ears, hands, and feet (Abbott 57). To give comfort to the fallen soldiers families, she sent home a lock of their hair. She later wrote about her experiences as a male soldier during the Civil War in her memoir, Soldier, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army; revealing the dark reality of a gruesome war that was anything but romantic. According to an Academic Journal, Both authors [Union soldier and spy, Sarah Emma Edmonds and Cuban Confederate soldier and spy Loretta Janeta Vel?- zquez also known as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford] argued that regional and gender stereotypes limit knowledge of who someone is and what she has the capability of becoming (14). Edmonds was among many women that un-sexed themselves from true womanhood and channeled their skills as compassionate women and fearless soldiers in a way that men could not. She later fought to receive a pension for her service in the war and soon after died from a reoccurring malaria illness she contracted from exposure during the war.

Elizabeth Van Lew was another Union Loyalist born from a wealthy family, unlike Emma Edmonds who came from a farm owning family. She was forty-three when she enrolled herself into the war. Despite her father, a wealthy business man whom bore Northern roots; he lacked no bellicose in his devoted intent on becoming well respected with his prosperous stature in Richmond, Virginia. In order to be respected in the South, a prosperous and prominent man must own slaves. Elizabeth was empathetic to the slaves her father owned and to all enslaved people. She used much of her inheritance after her father died to free enslaved people. During the war since she could not be a nurse for the Union soldiers she tricked a Confederate General (John Winder) into according her permission to serve as a nurse for the Confederate prisoners. This was her disguise to aid and provide goods to the Union soldiers. She also took some wounded Union soldiers home with her to her mansion on Grace Street to heal and restore them back to good health. According to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, "She had no vote, no public forum, no way to make McClellan [Union General] advance and attack, and she longed to grasp a bit of control" (Abbott 82). She transported many Union soldiers in her wagon that waved a Confederate flag to secure her safety and travel to and from home without any risk of being suspected a traitor as she had already been suspected of before participating as a nurse for the Confederate prisoners.

Elizabeths involvement in the war progressed once she discovered a large secret room in her mansion that could house many wounded Union soldiers and that its entry could go unnoticed if masked in white paint and a dresser that stood before it that was matched in white paint. She successfully operated under the Richmond Underground and became the most famous woman in Richmond using her false sincerity as a Southern woman to trick the Confederates in believing her loyalty lies with them and not the Union. According to a journal by Elna C. Green, She succeeded in her underground work partly because Confederate authorities believed their own mythology about Southern ladies (Green 517). When the war had ended and the town of Richmond exploded in dread and weariness because the Confederates fell in defeat. Confederate Loyalists faltered the town to ruins, burying Confederate currency, pouring whiskey in the gutters, and desperately trying to protect and hide their valuables. Among the frantic despair in the streets, Elizabeth proudly took out a flag from her secret room that she had sewn stars onto over the years and proudly hung the flag of the United States high above her mansion. She earned herself a high paying job after the war as a postmaster for General Ulysses S. Grant and was able to have colored people as well as female clerks hired on but she tragically lost everything after the new election. She died poor and alone leaving no memoir behind; expressing it was of boorish taste to swagger her vanity and accomplishments.

One of the most well-known iconic female figures during the Civil War was Dorothea Dix. She was an honorable and admirable humanitarian who faced prosecution like many who rose from hardships and fought for nobility during the Civil War and all throughout her years of life. She was not one to boast her vanity but instead lived piously and modestly with a great sense of humbleness. Dorothea Dix was also a reformer and a pioneer for the research of care and treatment for the mentally ill. She investigated many prisons, almshouses (poor houses), and insane asylums, suffering many uncomfortable trips of bumpy train transportation as well as steamships that were often exposed to diseases (where she contracted malaria that periodically affected her health). She commissioned ill and suffering patients and tirelessly worked to establish an analysis of the poor insane or potentially curable patients that were literally chained to a life of neglect and disparity, succumbed in their own filth and feces in tightly confined spaces.

It was her passion to bring forth improvements and speak for those that could not speak for themselves. She compared the insane to slaves that were auctioned like cattle to new masters. Though she was an advocator, she was not a feminist. She valued her virtue; her sense of pious and modest refinement; and felt that diminishing oneself by obtrusive behavior waned respect. According to Dorothea Dix, Forgotten Samaritan, "A woman who had traveled as widely and beheld so vast a pageant of injustice as Dorothea Dix could not help being alert to the rights and wrongs of her sex; yet she denied that she was a feminist" (Marshall 121). She advocated as the speaker for the mentally ill and petitioned bills through legislation to open and operate hospitals to house the mentally ill and properly treat and care for them. During the Civil War, she requested to serve for the wounded soldiers and was soon awarded Superintendent of United States Army Nurses advocating for military hospitals, proper training for nurses; and was authorized to select nurses to serve for the Union Army.

She recruited women no younger than thirty who must look and dress plainly and have substantial experience, health, and courage. Her work during the Civil War was a brief time of her career that she hoped would not carry out judgment after she lost full authority to the Surgeon-General who now had more say over recruiting nurses and operating the hospitals. She worked eighteen more months after the war, after the nurses resigned home, men were relocated to their loved ones, war hospitals were left with no more suffering or healing breaths; and lastly the final records and files were completed. Though she worked for the Union Army, she did not favor the war. She had birthed institutions (or as she would call her children) all over North America and in other countries as well such as Scotland, England, and Italy (to name a few). She had hoped that her role in the Civil War would not lose the respect of the people in the South who like everyone she met, praised her humble and selfless demeanor.

Many women during the Civil War left notable and noble impacts for their bravery and heroicness for whichever side they were loyal to after making great sacrifices and enduring daunting danger in ways that men would not know. Many women were left out when credit was given and fell below the shadow of men who drew the recognition for valor. Those unfortunate that did not find fame in the newspapers or in their memoirs were omitted from history until rediscovered by historians. There are far too great of details to go into when recounting the lives these women lived and the struggles and hardships they endured. There are so many more honorable mentions as well, including an unidentified woman who fought her way up to promotion to sergeant after her gutsy and gallant contributions to the battle of Fredericksburg. She shocked the colonel of the Army of Potomac when she gave birth after fighting through four trimesters of pregnancy disguised as a male soldier. According to They Fought like Demons, Yet in all that was written home about her by enlisted men and officers, neither her true nor her enlisted identity were ever mentioned. They add, Her name, the alias under which she served, and her regimental affiliation remain unknown (Blanton and Cook 15).

Another soldier, Mary Ann Clark joined to leave behind the agony and confusion of home life after her husband left her and their two children to wed and impregnate another woman. After being shot in the breast, Mary was discovered to be a woman and was then taken as a prisoner of war; only to be let go if she dressed in womens clothing, a tactic many capturers did. It is astonishing to discover what these women went through and why they wanted to participate in the war. It is also alarming that so many of them had been effaced in recognition and were often placed behind male war heroes when it was the women that faced more perils in the many roles they took on. By participating in the war and observing the humility throughout bloodshed and deceit, these women created and fostered a transgendered self-identity from crossing societal and cultural lines for equality by meshing their experiences as a woman and a male soldier and manipulated their own femininity. They were great zealous soldiers.

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Women During The Civil War. (2019, May 18). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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